Sexual Abuse - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Sexual Abuse


For thousands of years, sexual interactions by adults with children have been a regular occurrence. The social historian deMause (1974) noted that children of ancient Greece and Rome, especially boys, were frequently sexually exploited. Even today, there are those, such as members of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), who believe adult-child sexual contact is appropriate and healthy. Entire industries have been created to support adult interest in child pornography, child prostitution, child sex tours, and other forms of sexual exploitation.

Child sexual abuse has only recently become recognized as an important social, political, and legal problem. The 1978 Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act and the 1986 Child Sexual Abuse and Pornography Act made it a federal crime to exploit a child sexually or to permit a child to engage in child pornography.

In the United States, the current definition of sexual abuse includes activities by a parent or other adult such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006). It is defined in CAPTA, the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (U.S. House of Representatives, 2003, Title 42, Chapter 67, Subchapter I, §5106g) as follows:

a. the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or b. the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.

Sexuality in young children is a natural occurrence leading unfortunately to millions of unnatural acts by pedophiles, particularly those aroused by prepubescent children. Of the estimated 906,000 children who were determined to be victims of child abuse or neglect in 2003, just 10 percent were sexually abused. Of all parents who were perpetrators of child abuse or neglect, fewer than 3 percent were associated with sexual abuse. More than three-quarters of perpetrators were friends or neighbors (National Clearinghouse, 2005). Many believe that most reports underestimate prevalence. While retrospective studies of adults suggest that ages seven to twelve is the period where children are most at risk of sexual abuse, more recent studies suggest that rates of sexual abuse have little variation for children three years of age or older.

Conceptual issues currently being discussed by professionals include (a) the cultural context, including normal patterns of touching and physical contact; (b) evaluating the intent of the perpetrator; (c) the exploitation of adult power and authority over the child; and (d) age or maturational differences between perpetrators and victims, especially given recent interest in adolescent and child victimizers (Miller-Perrin and Perrin, 1999).

Children have been sexually molested outside the home by Catholic priests, YMCA and Boy Scout staff members, and child care providers, as a weapon of war and may be associated with abduction and human trafficking. The first national study of sexual abuse in child care settings (Finkelhor et al., 1988) found children were at lower risk from sexual abuse in child care than in their own homes. In those cases where sexual abuse took place in a child care setting, the vast majority of cases (83%) involved single perpetrators, and child care staff and/or staff family members were most likely to be perpetrators. Few things predicted which children or families would be victimized. Abuse was most likely to occur in bathrooms or nap rooms. While the most common form of molestation was touching or fondling of children’s genitals, penetration occurred in 93 percent of all cases in licensed child care settings. In considering prevention, several risk factors should be considered (Kalinowski et al., 1988). Urban settings, a heterogeneous staff, periodic but unpredictable supervised visits by parents, screening staff family members, and open parental access appeared to help reduce the incidence of sexual abuse. Facilities designed to minimize opportunities for inappropriate, hidden adult-child behavior may also reduce potential abuse.

Only 3 percent of confirmed child abuse cases in 1997 occurred in child care centers (Wang and Daro, 1998). Statistically, children have been safer in child care and other early childhood settings from the risk of sexual abuse than in their own homes. Molestation by family members, or boyfriends of the mother, is also likely to have greater posttraumatic stress disorder symptomatology. Many professionals believe false allegations of child sexual abuse against fathers stemming from divorce-custody situations are increasing.

It is also important to remember than many of the high-profile sexual molestation in child care cases in the 1980s were later found to have significant shortcomings, especially as a result of leading and suggestive interviews of children by case workers and law enforcement personnel.

Current research issues include the reliability of medical diagnoses and assessments; racial, ethnic, and gender differences in perpetrators and victims; attempts to better understand the roots of pedophilia; relationships between the age and severity of molestation and long-term health; where to locate convicted pedophiles after release from prison; and the advantages and difficulties of teaching children about their bodies, how to protect themselves, and how and when to inform adults about concerns.

Early childhood professionals, parents, and members of the community have a responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse, as well as a responsibility to guard against overreaction to a terrible but relatively rare occurrence, one consequence of which has been to effectively eliminate males from the out- of-home development of young children. See also Sex and Sexuality in Young Children.

Further Readings: Child Welfare Information Gateway (2006). Child maltreatment 2004: Summary of key findings. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information. Retrieved June 19, 2006, from, L. (1974). A history of childhood. New York: Psychotherapy Press; Finkelhor, D., L. Williams, and N. Burns (1988). Nursery crimes. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications; Kalinowski, M., L. Williams, and K. Gartner (1988). In D. Finkelhor, L. Williams, and N. Burns, eds., Nursery crimes. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications; Miller-Perrin, C. L., and R. Perrin (1999). Child maltreatment: An introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (2004). What is child abuse and neglect? Washington, DC: Author. Available online at; National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect State Statutes Series (2005). Definitions of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: Author. Available online at; U.S. House of Representatives (2003). Child abuse prevention and treatment act. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Legal Information Institute. Available online at; Wang, C. T. and D. Daro (1998). Current trends in child abuse reporting and fatalities; The results of the 1997 annual fifty state survey. Chicago: National Center on Child Abuse Prevention Research.

Michael Kalinowski